Food allergies 101

By: Dr. Joey Shulman

Author: Canadian Living


Food allergies 101

By: Dr. Joey Shulman

What is a food allergy?

There is great debate among the medical community regarding the true definition of the word allergy. Physiologically, an allergic response or sensitivity to a food occurs when the body, for various reasons, perceives an otherwise harmless food as a dangerous invader.

Similar to a bacteria or virus, the food invader triggers an outpouring of antibodies (specifically immunoglobins IgE or IgG), whose main goal is to eliminate the invader through various responses such as respiratory (asthma), digestive (vomiting or diarrhea), or through the skin (eczema).

When an allergic response is immediate, it involves the excess production of immunoglobin IgE, which triggers the release of histamine from cells. A release of histamine in the body results in symptoms such as wheezing, skin rashes, and excess mucous production.

Food allergies vs. food intolerances
In contrast to immediate reactions, food intolerances (also called food sensitivities) produce signs and symptoms that are variable and often delayed. It appears that the release of immunoglobins IgG is responsible for the development of food sensitivities. Food sensitivities can develop for reasons such as poor digestive health, overconsumption of anti-nutrient foods, and lack of variety in the diet.

For example, children who eat refined wheat products over and over again may eventually become intolerant to wheat and suffer from chronic respiratory infections. Because food intolerances/sensitivities are not as obvious, they are often called the hidden problem. As a general rule, if your children are eating the right foods for their bodies, an adverse response, even as mild as a runny nose, following an ice cream cone should not occur. The good news is that with proper nutrition, elimination diets, and supplement therapy, food intolerances can often be eliminated.

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As mentioned, reaction to a food can be immediate or delayed. In a few cases, immediate reactions can be quite severe and are classified as an anaphylactic allergy. For example, an anaphylactic reaction occurs when a child's breathing is immediately compromised after eating a peanut. Anaphylactic reactions should be taken very seriously as they are life-threatening. Strict avoidance of the food must be adhered to.

Anaphylactic allergies are considered fixed allergies that cannot be changed. Parents and caregivers usually know if a child suffers from an anaphylactic allergy and therefore take the necessary precautions such as reading labels, avoiding restaurants that do not list their ingredients, and carrying an EpiPen (a shot of epinephrine injected into the skin) in case of emergency. Only 1 percent of all children have anaphylactic allergies.

The second type of allergic reaction is a delayed response that can occur hours and even days after eating a particular food. I will refer to this type of reaction as a food intolerance or food sensitivity. For example, Billy, who is unknowingly allergic to dairy, may develop an ear infection two days after eating a vanilla ice cream cone. The doctor will put Billy on his third round of antibiotics that year.

Unfortunately, antibiotics will kill off the good bacteria in the gut, allowing for the overgrowth of unhealthy microbes such as yeast, further aggravating the condition. Parents and children often get trapped in this vicious cycle. If steps are not taken to remove the dairy from Billy's diet and restore proper bowel health, the ear infection is likely to recur. If Billy's intolerance to dairy is not investigated and addressed, he runs the risk of being placed on more antibiotics and may even face surgical intervention.

Detecting food sensitivities in a child can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. However, with the guidance of a welltrained health care practitioner and the proper information, the food culprit can be identified and removed.

If symptoms do occur following the ingestion of certain foods, these are some possible causes:

• A child has eaten an excessive amount of the same type of food.
• A child is suffering from poor digestive health because of stress or frequent use of broadspectrum antibiotics, pesticides, preservatives, or food dyes.
• A child has eaten too much food and has overloaded his or her system.
• The immune system is compromised.
• There is a decreased production in stomach acid (Hcl) or other digestive enzymes.
• There is a predisposition to a heightened allergic response because of genetics.

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When it comes to children's food intolerances, parents are often left to do their own homework. The current medical approach used to deal with allergies is to suppress the body's natural immune response.

The two types of drugs most commonly used are antihistamines to stop histamine release, and corticosteroids to halt inflammation. These medications are very effective at masking symptoms, but can be problematic when used for lengthy periods. Often chronic use of these medications can result in a rebound effect when the medication is eventually stopped.

Have you ever wondered why your allergic symptoms seem to become worse when you stop taking a certain drug? This is a classic example of the rebound effect. Because the body's natural response has been suppressed, when given the opportunity, it responds with more severe symptoms. These medications are appropriate in certain cases, however, their longterm use can cause even more problems and side effects. Here are the standard treatment options used by the allopathic model of medicine:

• Antihistamines: Treat the symptoms by suppressing the body's histamine response

Decongestants: Reduce congestion

• Desensitization shots: Allergy shots

• Laser surgery: Use of laser to vaporize mucous-forming nasal tissue

• Steroid nasal sprays: Long-term effect unknown

Integrative medicine, on the other hand, takes a different approach to allergies by investigating why the body is triggering a heightened immune reaction to an otherwise harmless food. Does the child suffer from poor digestion? Poor absorption? Is the child eating the same foods over and over again?

There are several tests available to help determine if food allergies are the cause of your children's illness or infections. Some of the tests available are very accurate, and others are rather crude. I recommend finding a health care practitioner who uses a combination of various diagnostic procedures.

Learn about Canada's 9 most common food allergies.

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Excerpted from Winning the Food Fight. Copyright 2003 by Dr. Joey Shulman. Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 


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Food allergies 101